Mueller hearings take impeachment off Congress’ table

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Congressional hearings with former Special Counsel Robert Mueller have come and gone. If there is one takeaway, it is that Donald Trump will not be removed from office by way of impeachment.

Many if not most Democratic politicians in Washington and a great many election analysts already knew this. But last week’s testimony by Mueller should make this reality now clear to everyone else — including the surprisingly large share of progressive and liberal voters still hanging onto the idea that the Russia investigation will, in the end, get Trump out.

It was always a longshot that Mueller’s physical appearance in Washington would achieve what his lengthy report on the Russian investigation could not. When Trump weathered the storm of the report’s springtime release, and there was still not enough Democratic support for impeachment and zero Republican support, that was the end of the matter, at least in term of Trump’s removal.

The July 24 hearing certified that idea.

Mueller has always been a reluctant and inadequate savior for the Democratic Party. When he gave a brief press conference on his report in late May, he basically warned the Democratic-led House of Representatives there’d be no point calling him to testify because he would not say anything beyond the report.

The House called him up anyway, spurred by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. Another warning from Mueller came on the eve of the hearings when he suddenly asked that one of his deputies in the special counsel’s office, Aaron Zebley, be allowed to accompany him to the Hill. While there was no definite indicator that the man was there to be a guide or a crutch, Mueller’s testimony, which was at times halting, at times muddled, certainly suggested he needed an assist.

He was not the sharp, confident witness Democrats had wanted. Optics should not matter, but they do, in politics and in life. Mueller seemed confused about certain aspects in his own report and endured withering attacks from Republicans on the two committees with no comebacks. He actually did drop a bombshell in highlighting that his report did not clear the president of obstruction of justice, which Trump and his backers have been saying for months. In answer to a question, he also said charges could be pursued after Trump left office.

But after the more than six hours of testimony, Republicans were popping champagne bottles and it was easy to see why. The hearing was in many respects the final play in a game first begun by Trump’s compliant attorney general, Bill Barr.

Barr sat on the final Mueller report for weeks after it was done in mid-April, but took license to immediately issue a four-page letter summarizing the 448-page document. He accurately noted that the report did not find that Trump had colluded with the Russians in the 2016 election but added no case had been made that Trump had obstructed justice. Some grumbling leaked out from Mueller’s prosecutors that the AG had misrepresented the report’s findings.

Nevertheless, Barr’s tactic of a preemptive strike worked. He gave Trump and all his surrogates in the media and politics a one-month head start over the counsel’s office plus all the talking points they needed to defend the president. In the mind of the public, the back-and-forth over impeachment became just another thing the two parties fight over. In other words, it was a wash.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has seen the writing on the wall and is no fan of impeachment. She knows that Democrats can still move ahead with it, but there is no way in Hades the GOP-led Senate will remove Trump from office — especially with his approval numbers within the party bumping up against 90%. Maybe in the privacy of her office, Pelosi popped off a few champagne corks, too, after the hearing, since it provides ammo for her to fend off the more restive members of her caucus.

We expect Democrats will continue to investigate all the loose threads that stem from the Mueller investigation. But as for impeachment, a look at history is useful.

In the 1970s, President Nixon’s defenders dug in on his behalf, too, and might also have prevailed. But the leaked tapes changed the game; Nixon convicted himself with his own words.

It would take something similar to turn the tide against Trump within the GOP and among reluctant Democrats. But Democrats should fully understand this qualifies as a wish only, not an actionable plan to defeat Trump in 2020.